Academic journal article Antiquity

The Application of Quick Response (QR) Codes in Archaeology: A Case Study at Telperion Shelter, South Africa

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Application of Quick Response (QR) Codes in Archaeology: A Case Study at Telperion Shelter, South Africa

Article excerpt


Accurate, efficient and clear recording is a key aim of archaeological field studies, but one not always achieved. Errors occur and information is not always properly recorded. Left unresolved, these errors create confusion, delay analysis and result in the loss of data, thereby causing misinterpretation of the past. To mitigate these outcomes, quick response (QR) codes were used to record the rock art of Telperion Shelter in Mpumalanga Province, eastern South Africa. The QR codes were used to store important contextual information. This increased the rate of field recording, reduced the amount of field errors, provided a cost effective alternative to conventional field records and enhanced data presentation. Such a tool is useful to archaeologists working in the field, and for those presenting heritage-based information to a specialist, student or amateur audience in a variety of formats, including scientific publications. We demonstrate the tool's potential by presenting an overview and critique of our use of QR codes at Telperion Shelter.

An overview of QR codes

QR codes are 2D, scannable matrices composed of a unique combination of pixelated squares. At the most basic level, they are capable of storing calendar events, contact details, URLs, text and geo-locations. While similar in function to barcodes, QR codes offer additional benefits; namely, their ability to store more than 7000 digits, whereas a barcode is limited to 20 (Crompton et al. 2012). They also have 30 percent error correction capabilities, meaning that if up to 30 per cent of the code is impaired, damaged or obstructed, data may still be recovered (Latzko-Toth & Barnhurst 2012). Other benefits include rapid scanning times, their comparatively small size when compared to traditional labels (Kiryakova et al. 2013), decreased processing time (Smith & Levy 2012) and a reduction in registrar errors, as well as the avoidance of illegibility and inconsistency in hand-writing styles (see Martinez-Moreno et al. 2011). Reading or generating QR codes can be performed using freely available programs downloaded onto any smart device. To create a code, the required information is entered into a data tab and a unique matrix is automatically generated (Figure 1). QR codes are thus ideal for supplying viewers with information and providing links to content.

Applications of QR codes in heritage fields

In heritage fields, QR codes have been implemented in a number of different contexts, including libraries (MacDonald 2012), museums (Farina et al. 2011) and archaeological sites (Mazel et al. 2012; Galani et al. 2013). The use of QR codes in archaeological research, however, is currently limited. In southern Jordan, Smith and Levy (2012) employed a geographic information system (GIS) program that used QR codes to record contextual information. In a similar application of digital technology, Martinez-Moreno et al. (2011) used data matrix (DM) codes to record specific artefact contexts. DM codes are similar in appearance to QR codes, but they cannot hold as much data. The team printed 3 x 3mm DM codes on polypropylene, to ensure their preservation, and used an adhesive to attach them to an artefact. They recorded less than 0.2 per cent information loss on 10 000 stone and bone tools, a significant reduction when compared to hand-recorded notes. In a similarly exhaustive use of codes, Dibble et al. (2007) used barcodes at Roc de Marsal, France, and Mossel Bay, South Africa, to link an object with its 3D features. QR codes can be used in a similar way, and were preferred for research at Telperion Shelter because of their superior data storage capacity.

Implementing QR codes at Telperion Shelter: an archaeological application

Telperion Shelter is a west-facing overhang situated along the eastern side of the Wilge River (Figure 2). Recording the site's rock art involved establishing 12 blocks or zones based on the topography of the rock face and the presence of rock art images. …

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